I promised in a previous post to write about Reagan’s environmental policies as Governor of California, and I like to keep my promises. In that post, I discussed Newt Gingrich’s new book, Contract with the Earth. In an interview with NPR, Gingrich cited Reagan as a Governor who supported private solutions for environmental problems, rather than big government approaches like taxes, regulation, and litigation. He referred to Lou Cannon’s Governor Reagan as his source. In that post, I expressed reservations about Gingrich’s reading of Lou Cannon, but the book was not fresh in my mind, since I hadn’t read it in a couple of years. This morning, however, I read Lou Cannon’s chapter on Reagan the “Conservationist.”
I didn’t see anything about Reagan advocating new technology, which is a central component of Gingrich’s green conservatism. Moreover, Reagan did not shy away from supporting government solutions to environmental problems. He supported air pollution standards that were tougher than the federal ones, and he helped grant the California Air Resources Board the authority “to prohibit the sale or registration of vehicles in California that failed to meet state auto emissions standards” (in Cannon’s words). He signed a stiff water pollution bill that imposed a $6,000-a-day fine on polluters. Under his administration, “California added 145,000 acres of land and two underwater Pacific Ocean reserves to the state park systems,” surpassing the achievements of most other modern California Governors, according to Cannon.
At the same time, not suprisingly, Reagan had a strong conservative streak that influenced his environmental policies. He was sympathetic to loggers, for he said, “A tree is a tree–how many more do you need to look at?” But, under the influence of his resources secreatary, Ike Livermore, Jr., Reagan crafted a measure that preserved acres of redwoods while saving jobs. Even more interestingly, his opposition to big government actually put him in the environmental camp on several occasions. He opposed the construction of a federally-supported dam, which would have destroyed an environmental treasure along with the land of a Native American tribe. The land belonged to the tribe by treaty, and Reagan said in a heroic moment, “We’ve broken too many damn treaties.” He also opposed a federally-backed highway that would have destroyed beautiful scenery, with little economic gain in return. I like this one quote by Cannon: “It did not occur to the road builders and the state’s powerful water establishment–an interlocking directorate of big farmers, water boards, state agencies, and supportive legislators–that Reagan’s desire to rein in government might apply to them.”
I liked this chapter because it offered a different kind of narrative. You see movies or read books about the environment, and they usually pit the evil polluting corporations against a heroic savior, big government, who consistently stands for the little guy. In this chapter, however, government was the problem, and the little guy was a victim of its intrusive policies. The hero of this story was Ronald Reagan. At the same time, contrary to Gingrich’s thesis, Governor Reagan was not adverse to government regulation, as President Reagan would be.